Analysis: Did Brown dither over Olympic ceremony?

When Downing Street "confirmed" last night that the prime minister would not attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing, his critics were quick to assume Gordon Brown had executed another U-turn.

But Downing Street quickly moved to claim this is not the case, insisting instead Mr Brown never intended to attend the opening ceremony - appearing instead at the close of the Games when the Olympic torch will be handed to Britain ahead of London 2012.

If this is the case, and various well placed sources suggest it is, then Downing Street appear to have presided over an impressive communications blunder, with strategists inside Number 10 seemingly unaware everyone else in Westminster has been debating Mr Brown's appearance at the controversial opening ceremony.

It had appeared Mr Brown would be the only major head of government attending the opening ceremony, with Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and potentially George Bush saying they would boycott the Beijing event.

Throughout this debate, including during Mr Sarkozy's state visit to Britain, Mr Brown gave the impression he was planning to attend the Olympic opening ceremony.

Speaking at a press conference with the French president he said: "I think President Sarkozy said himself that he expected Britain, because we are going to host the next Olympics, to be present at the Olympic ceremonies and I will certainly be there."

The plural on "ceremonies" is crucial as it gives the impression both the opening and closing ceremonies were up for debate.

Now, however, Downing Street have insisted they never directly spoke of the opening ceremony and it was always planned for the prime minister to attend the close of the games, along with the London mayor, and Olympics minister Tessa Jowell and Princess Anne to attend the opening.

Several Westminster journalists, who travel alongside the prime minister, have confirmed they were briefed on this plan some weeks ago. The Chinese Embassy has also said Mr Brown always intended to attend the closing ceremony only.

Therefore it appears Mr Brown has not dithered before conceding a U-turn, but this morning's reaction to the news suggests Downing Street failed to communicate his plans - leaving the prime minister open to further accusations of poor PR management.

It is the latest in a series of low-level blunders emanating from Number 10, ranging from infighting between Mr Brown's staff to the embarrassing suggestion Mr Brown got lost at Windsor Castle.

It also appears to be a second unsatisfactory compromise over the politics of the Olympics, after Mr Brown was criticised for receiving the Olympic torch at Downing Street and then refused to touch it.

With Downing Street vulnerable to accusations of fudging the issue, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said it should have made the situation clearer.

Mr Clegg said the debate was always centered on the opening ceremony, and Number 10 expecting people to believe Mr Brown never intended to go in the first place "either smacks of a rather odd way of going about things or just downright incompetence".


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